10/06/08 11:32 PM EST
Rays clinch, punch ticket to ALCS
Upton powers early lead with pair of solo shots vs. White Sox
By Bill Chastain / MLB.com
The Rays bleached the blackout at U.S. Cellular Field on Monday night by taking a 6-2 win over the White Sox in Game 4 of the AL Division Series to clinch the best-of-five series by a 3-1 margin.
A black-clad crowd of 40,454 watched as the Rays collected their 100th win of the season to advance to the next round of the playoffs, where they will meet the Red Sox in Game 1 Friday night at Tropicana Field.
"This team has a will to win," said Cliff Floyd, dripping with champagne. "They have a will to be better than everybody expects us to be. And I think that's the only thing that matters to them. Like, 'You know what? We're going to beat everything you said we weren't going to be able to do.'"
By winning, the Rays took their first playoff series in the team's history. Grant Balfour struck out Ken Griffey to end the game, and for the third time since Sept. 20, when the Rays clinched a playoff spot, the Rays celebrated.
"This never gets old," said Dan Wheeler, with champagne corks shooting around him and beer showers soaking the players and others in the clubhouse. "As a kid, you dream about playing Major League Baseball -- you always want to win. ... Just to be in this situation. I think I keep using the same phrase, but words can't describe this. It's so fun."
The White Sox crowd got taken out of its raucous, white towel-waving game early by the Rays' heroes of the night, B.J. Upton and Andy Sonnanstine.
In the first inning, Upton hit a 2-1 pitch from White Sox starter Gavin Floyd 384 feet into the left-field bleachers before repeating the feat in the third inning with a solo home run to center field on a 3-2 pitch from Floyd that gave the Rays a 2-0 lead. Upton's second blast was his third in two games.
"I just got a couple of good pitches to hit," Upton said. "[I] just wanted to get the bat head out, and I did today. They don't call it the Windy City for no reason. I kind of got it up in that jet stream and it carried out of the ballpark for me."
Meanwhile, Sonnanstine pitched with confidence and got the Rays through 5 2/3 innings, allowing just two solo home runs to pick up the win.
Throughout the season, and his career, Sonnanstine always has been the pitcher who doesn't throw hard enough and the one who always has to prove himself. And he did just that Monday night.
"That is typical," Rays manager Joe Maddon said of Sonnanstine's performance. "He's been a winner his entire life.
"... He had great composure from the first pitch. He made two mistakes with the fastball and they were both hit out. He is a winner. He is well thought-out. And again, you have a lot of faith in him. The guys love playing behind him."
Sonnanstine, who is perhaps the most low-keyed member of the team, spoke of trying to keep things simple on the mound.
First time's the charm
|With their ALDS victory, the Rays became the sixth expansion team to win a postseason debut.|
|Team||Joined MLB||First postseason||Round|
By the time Sonnanstine handed the game over to J.P. Howell, the Rays had a 5-2 lead. In addition to Upton's contribution, Floyd had an RBI double, Dioner Navarro had an RBI single, Carlos Pena went 3-for-4 with two RBIs and two stolen bases and Carl Crawford scored a run and stole two bases.
In the end, six runs proved to be plenty for the Rays' bullpen effort Monday night, which consisted of 1 1/3 scoreless innings from Howell, followed by two scoreless innings by Balfour.
"We've got to shut it down at the end of the game," Howell said. "It's kind of what we've been doing all year. It's just magnified right now. Against these guys we knew we had to attack and that's how you beat this team, you attack."
The Rays' bullpen allowed just one run -- a solo home run surrendered by Wheeler in Game 1 -- in 11 2/3 innings during the series, good for a 0.77 ERA.
"I'm sorry that one run was me," said Wheeler, who got the save in Game 1. "You know what, it is incredible. This is so fun. We've joked about how J.P. and Balfour just continue to go out there and do it. They just continue to make pitch after pitch. They just have the confidence right now to go out there and do that. That's something special to be able to do that, to compete like they do. You don't see that a lot. They're two special people."
Now the Rays will take their magical ride to a higher tier of the postseason, leaving many wondering how far this team can go and how it has been able to do what it has this season.
"I think it's because we believe," Upton said. "We believe we can win every game and we expect to win every game. So any time you put that along with the talent we have with this team, it can take us a long way."
And truth be known, the cat is out of the bag when it comes to the composition of the Rays' roster. Fact is, these guys are good.
"There's a lot of talent in this room," Crawford said. "We don't think it's a miracle. We play with each other. We know what each other can do. We just have to show everybody else. We believe in each other and we think that is going to take us far."
Bill Chastain is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.